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The ruby ring, p.1
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       The Ruby Ring, p.1

           Diane Haeger
The Ruby Ring




  a novel




  Title Page





  Part One














  Part Two

















  Part Three









  Part Four







  Author’s Note

  A Readers’ Guide

  About the Author

  Other books by Diane Haeger

  Copyright Page

  To Rebecca Seltzner,

  for your encouragement,

  support, and love.


  WHILE THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION, THE STORY IS BASED on the actual discovery of a ruby ring that lay hidden for over five hundred years beneath a thin layer of paint on Raphael’s very sensual painting La Fornarina (“The Baker’s Daughter”). The mystery was ignited in 2002 during a cleaning and X-ray at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. By whose hand the ring was hidden, and the full reason for concealing it, may never be known. This novel explores one possible scenario.

  As with all works incorporating the imagination, some of the dates, character ages, and full Italian names have been altered, and the span of time between some events has been condensed for the sake of continuity. Tying together the ring’s discovery with notions and suppositions that history has left are the sixteenth-century writings of Giorgio Vasari, the nineteenth-century research of Rodolfo Lanciani, and also the later work of Vincenzo Golzio. I am also grateful to the work of Konrad Oberhuber concerning the subject of Raphael and Margherita.

  I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Professor Susana Salessi for her patient guidance with the nuances of the Italian language, as well as with the translation of the Renaissance sonnets; to Antonio Cintio, Massimo Avitabile, and Danilo Patan, for arranging things in Rome so seamlessly; to my incredible agent, Irene Goodman, and my editor, Rachel Beard Kahan, for her truly extraordinary care with this book; and finally to Ken, Elizabeth, and Alex, who followed me eagerly in search of the long-forgotten pathway through the lives of Raphael and Margherita because it is what you do. Your devotion and support remain my inspiration.

  The way my heart sees you, your beauty is clear.

  But my very faithful paintbrush cannot compare it.

  My love for you weakens all else.



  Rome, 1520

  SHROUDED IN A CLOAK AND HOOD OF MIDNIGHT-BLUE velvet, Margherita stood silently amid the deep and mournful sound of tolling bells. They resonated across the cold, vaulted office chamber—a call to matins at the convent of Sant’Apollonia. Folds of luxurious fabric rippled around her, edged with swirls of gold thread, cascading like a rich, blue waterfall, and concealing a body as beautiful as it was notorious.

  Her face was nearly obscured as she stood, stone still, on the uneven gray slate floor inside the sparse room with soaring whitewashed walls, and adorned with a large crucifix. Only her eyes were visible to the two elderly nuns, both dressed in flowing muslin habits of pale gray, with stiff white collars and black wimples. Both peered up at her from behind a wide oak desk.

  But Margherita’s eyes, deeply brown and flecked with gold, spoke volumes.

  They were the eyes that Rome had seen re-created in a dozen different likenesses. Paintings and frescoes. Portraits, innocent and seductive. Most scandalously, the image of the Madonna. That such a grand mastro had dared to paint his own mistress, in that way!

  She made no sound. Words had been beyond her since the moment of his death. Now there was nothing but the great hollowness that had taken possession of her, even as the well-dressed young man beside her argued on Margherita’s behalf.

  “I am sorry, Signor Romano, what you ask is now impossible. We cannot take her.”

  “But Mastro Raphael requested it a fortnight ago! I brought the request to you myself!”

  “I am afraid I have been reminded that it is not our custom to take so infamous a woman into our sisterhood for the expressed purpose of protecting her. Not when she will not willingly repent her past.”

  “Her coming here after his passing was agreed to! Nothing was said about her open repentance as a condition!”

  The abbess drew in a rheumy breath then coughed behind a veined hand as she leaned to her side, listening to the nun beside her. A moment later she calmly said, “There has been an objection.”

  “Pray, who could object to what has already been arranged?”

  “Cardinal Bibbiena came to see me yesterday.”

  Margherita heard the name without surprise. Memories, moments in time, circled in her mind like black crows. So Your Grace has your revenge at last.

  “You understand, of course, why he is opposed to this,” Giulio Romano argued on.

  “I do. Yet it changes nothing. The cardinal is a very wealthy and powerful man.”

  “One who made Signor Raphael the richer.”

  “But as you so wisely observed, Signor Raphael now is dead. And even she cannot be protected forever from the scandal they created.”

  As the two stoic nuns exchanged another glance, Giulio drew from his own dark cloak, edged in silver thread, a black velvet pouch full of gold florins. He had spent the last ten years of his life anticipating the needs of the great master, and he was driven to honor him in death with that same loyalty. With a flourish, he tossed the pouch onto the desk between the two old women.

  “One hundred gold florins. And if that does not suffice, there shall be more. The mastro meant to see Signorina Luti safe here now that he has—”

  He did not speak the jarring word himself, and Margherita knew that had been for her benefit. Giulio, with his tawny, smooth-skinned face and gentle smile, had been so good and loyal, such a talented painter in his own right. And now greatness lay before him as it once had for Raphael. That fact was bittersweet, no matter how much she cared for Giulio.

  At twenty-six, Margherita felt older and more jaded than the two ancient women who now sat in judgment of her. This was her life now, and the love of that life, the focus of her existence for the last six years, was lying cold and alone in a marble coffin, at the tragically young age of thirty-seven.

  She closed her eyes for a moment as Giulio did her further bidding. The truth was, she did not care what became of her now. She could spend the rest of her days in the convent of Sant’ Apollonia, or she could return home to become a spectacle back in her family’s bakery, if they would even take her. And yet it should not have come to this. He had so much more to accomplish, so much more to paint. Someone else now would be named architect for the new Saint Peter’s, and the great Raphael would one day be nothing more than a footnote in Vatican history—if Bibbiena had his way.

  “Five hundred gold florins to the convent.”

  The nun’s counter
offer in a voice holding no emotion, shook Margherita and she looked back down at the spindly, aged woman with her parchment-pale face and sunken dark eyes. Margherita would be safe here, yes. But this place was also to be her punishment.

  “The florins . . . and the ring.”

  Margherita felt herself go cold. She had not seen the blow coming. Instinctively, she curled her hand into a fist as if to protect the jewel she wore.

  Amid the stunned silence Giulio’s honest eyes were eventually upon her, and they urged agreement. He was only doing as the mastro had bid him, the wide gray green eyes silently pleaded.

  In her mind, she saw the painting still on Raphael’s personal easel, so newly completed—an image of Margherita herself seductively smiling, happy, with their whole lives before them. He had painted her alluring, in only an exotic turban wound through her glossy hair, a sensual strip of shimmering gauze across her naked body, and a band on her arm bearing his name, Raphael Urbinas, as a sign of his love and possession. It had been a declaration that she was, and always would be, his . . . and, as if to punctuate that claim, there, too, was her betrothal ring painted boldly on her finger.

  Please give her more florins instead! she longed to cry out. Give her anything but this ring! For who alive now in this world but she knew what it symbolized?

  “Three hundred florins and the ring. That is my final offer,” said the nun, her face pale and flat, void of expression or color.

  Glancing down, Margherita saw the nun’s old, veined fingers curled like a claw around the turn of the desk. And she saw the simple gold band on the woman’s left hand. So that was to be her penance. A symbol of undying love between a man and woman, her priceless ruby, was to be exchanged on her hand for the plain band of the bride of Christ. The irony of that did not escape her.

  It was at last agreed upon and Margherita became nothing more than a silent witness to the arrangement of her future. Only then did she and Giulio walk somberly out and stop beside the convent gate, the walls around them covered in a sadly faded fresco. There, they bid one another a final farewell beneath a stone arch leading out into the street. As Raphael’s most trusted assistant held her tightly against his chest in an afternoon sun that shimmered a fiery opalescent orange, Margherita felt the familiar sting of tears. His strength reminded her of Raphael.

  “I shall see your private painting into good hands,” he whispered against her cheek.

  “It does not matter. Nothing does anymore.”

  “Come now. You are still a young and beautiful woman.”

  “A woman forever marked.”

  “Nonsense.” He smiled unconvincingly at her, and she thought then how Giulio had always worn his heart on his sleeve. “Remain here for a time, until things calm down a little. A year, perhaps two. Then you shall be free to make a new life.”

  But Raphael had forever changed each of them and, for an instant, their shared grief was a balm. She looked up into Giulio’s kind, calming expression.

  “What will you do with it?” She had meant Raphael’s final, sensual portrait of her—the one that bore all of their secrets. The one meant as a wedding gift to her.

  “When the time comes, I shall see it into safe hands. But, for your sake, not as it was.” He had altered the portrait to protect her. As much as she understood it, that fact brought her great pain. He lowered his gaze and tone. “Cardinal Bibbiena still despises the two of you for what he believes you cost his niece. I must see to it that your enemies have been mollified when it is time for you to emerge from this place.”

  She kissed his cheek, but her own face was without expression as she felt the ring with her thumb for a few desperate moments longer, still secure on the finger onto which Raphael himself had slipped it. “Many thanks, mi amico, but I shall not be coming out of this place. We both know that.”

  “I will be back to see you in a few days once you are settled. We shall speak of it then.”

  “Do not come, Giulio.”

  “But the mastro would want—”

  She stilled his words with the tip of her finger, and the small ruby ring glinted in the last light of what was now a fiery red Roman sun. “It will only hurt us both more if you do, and remind us of times that no longer are, nor can ever be again.”

  He looked away from her and out into the Piazza Sant’Apollonia, as they stood clinging to one another one final time. “He was always a great artist—you made him a better man,” Giulio murmured, his voice breaking.

  “And you were the friend with whom he shared everything,” Margherita said in return. “He trusted you.”

  “And I shall never betray that trust.”

  “Now, you must go before someone sees you here with me. You have such a brilliant career of your own ahead of you.”

  “Only your protection matters to me.”

  Her smile was bittersweet. “He loved you, as well,” she said softly. “He would want you to thrive and prosper now. Was that not what all of your years and work together was about? Honor him by making that matter to you most of all.”

  Wrapping her arms around herself, she watched him walk away from her then, and out into the crowded street. Her eyes followed him until he was lost amid the shoppers, horse carts, and tall, crumbling buildings of the Piazza Sant’Apollonia. Turning slowly, she walked back through the convent gates, preparing to surrender the last dear thing she had in all the world. She could no longer bear to remember the scandalous life she had lived . . . or think of what might become of the precious ruby ring, and why a simple baker’s daughter from Trastevere had come, for a moment in time, to wear so priceless and exquisite a thing.

  Part One



  An old story,

  but the glory of

  it is forever.



  IT WAS A COLD AND DARKLY CLOUDED AFTERNOON AS Margherita made her way down the narrow, cobbled streets of the neighborhood called Trastevere, shielded by a tangle of shoppers, merchants, stray dogs, oxcarts, and gangs of children. The air smelled of horses, sheep, and drying laundry that flapped between buildings above her. Before her father could ask her to draw the dozen fresh loaves of baccio from the blazing bread ovens she had slipped out the open door of the bakery, carrying the dozing toddler on her hip. It was the only way to get a moment’s peace.

  Cloaked in a midnight-blue wool cape and a simple green cloth dress, she had vanished the moment all of the waiting customers had been served. Surely Letitia could assist Father a bit more for a change. It might actually benefit her sister, she thought with a rueful little smile, to do something other than complain about life’s unfairness, and the lack of leisure time, when she continued to insist upon producing children in such rapid succession.

  Walking briskly away from the Via Santa Dorotea, Margherita passed a toothless woman, her face a patchwork of wrinkles, and a garland of garlic wrapped around her neck, as she sat before a shop bearing cows’ heads and pigs’ feet hanging from bloody strands of rope. Above the shop on the narrow, shadowy street were large windows barred with heavy iron grates. The massive wooden doors between street-front shops were studded and bolted in iron as well. Even in this weather she was glad to be outside, glad it would rain soon. Her mother, God rest her soul, had said that the rain always washed away the predictable and brought with it possibilities, and she, too, liked to believe that.

  Putting a sleeve across her nose, she moved away from the gutter where a blue-black sludge and rancid piles of horse dung had gathered tainting the air. She passed the busy fish market, and the vendors calling out their prices, amid the pungent smell of the day’s catch. Such a tangle of odors, and so much activity. Nearby was an apothecary shop, a grocer, and, beyond that, a grand stone stable block for the nearby villa of the powerful banker Agostino Chigi. Her sister’s husband, Donato, worked there as a stableman.

  She held her cherub-faced little nephew, Matteo, who adored her especially, close to her chest beneat
h her cloak as she walked with brisk purpose onto the Via della Lungara toward the wildly opulent Chigi Villa. To dream is to live, her sainted mother had also taught her from the time she was old enough to understand the words. And dreams were the only way out of a predictable existence. Here, away from Trastevere and the bakery, she could make herself believe she was almost equal to the women of means who moved around her. Here, she too was simply a woman, with a child, out on a day’s errand. Free to breathe, and to imagine. The baby’s presence would keep men, and their unwelcome attentions, at bay.

  Moving nearer, her heart began to race with anticipation, as it always did, as the majestic manor on the banks of the flowing Tiber came into view. Dio! she thought, feeling the warm rush of freedom’s pleasure as she quickened her pace, avoiding more pools of sludge, and pockets of litter and dung, along the path. She felt her smile broaden with the little boy asleep in her arms, the hem of her simple dress and cloak whispering across the cobbled stones, at last once again in the shadow of the grand, classically frescoed Palazzo Chigi.

  And the fantasy was always the same. What must it be like, to live amid this great, regal stuccoed giant, with its many elegant mysteries? To actually know that sort of magnificent existence beyond the slender pilasters, terra-cotta frieze; past its walls of rough-hewn, honey-colored stone, with silk dresses, servants, and meals on platters of Tuscan silver. When she was feeling brave like this, and a little in need of her mother’s dreams, she would steal herself here to catch just a glimpse of the fantastically grand stone villa beyond the daunting iron gates. Seeing it was, she thought, to glimpse a bit of heaven.

  Margherita could actually imagine that life of nobility that her sister mocked. She would be like a princess, one who lived in something like this villa of the great Chigi family. When she was alone at night, brushing out her hair, and free to give into her thoughts, she allowed herself to imagine servants readying her bed, laying out her jewels and gown for the following day. There would be silken sheets, rose petals cast upon them, and a coverlet full of goose down . . . a banquet of sole with pine nuts, of rich Etruscan wine, and a table just for sweets . . .

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